Fox Searchlight seems to be a little shaken up. After their $17.5 million investment into Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, it seems that they could possibly lose some money if audiences are unwilling or unable to forgive him for his past “indiscretions,” to put it lightly.
In case you’ve missed it, 17 years ago, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin (the man who co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with him) were accused of rape. Celestin was actually convicted but the case was thrown out when the victim refused to testify a second time. But Parker was acquitted because he and the young lady had had consensual sex before. If you read the transcripts from a conversation with the alleged victim and Parker, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. And the testimony of another man who was there at the time of the incident paints an even worse one. Not only were they accused of rape, afterward they spent weeks antagonizing their accuser, following her after classes, to her dorm room, revealing her identity to fellow students.
Then in 2012, after a couple of suicide attempts around the time of the incident, the woman finally succeeded in taking her own life.
These days, though Celestin is credited as a co-writer for the film, Parker has chosen to distance himself from him. Even though according to testimony, it was Parker who summoned Celestin into the room, with the alleged victim back in 1999. And Parker has said that Celestin was the first person he ever told about his Birth of a Nation idea.
Today, he says: “I wrote the screenplay by myself,” Parker said, adding that no one helped him on the first of 40 drafts he’s worked on since 2007. When pressed about Celestin’s contributions, Parker said obliquely: “I just did a lot of research. I hired a lot of people. I had researchers. I had all kinds of people. I just wanted people to feel whole.”
The emergence of all these details had many wondering whether or not they should still support the film. I’ve said that I could not. And there are others, perhaps most notably, writer Roxane Gay, for The New York Times.
In a recent article for Variety, sources close to Parker reveal that he is a bit surprised by the reaction.
Likely because the facts of his rape case have never been hidden. It’s been featured on his wikipedia page for years now. According to Variety, a source who has been in close communication with Parker says that “he’s in a low place…He vacillates between thinking the case is resurfacing now after 17 years because of a Hollywood conspiracy against him or just bad luck. He’s disappointed over the backlash on social media and that the African American online community hasn’t been more supportive. And he’s even mad at himself, for underestimating the public’s interest in a court case that happened so long ago.”
Well, I won’t speak for the whole African American community, but I’m disappointed in Nate Parker. I would have loved to see The Birth of a Nation. But it’s his actions that, albeit a while ago, that are distracting people from what I’m sure was a beautifully made, game-changing film. And while we’ve all made mistakes we wouldn’t want drudged up and made public, I’m willing to bet that most of our mistakes didn’t forever alter the course of someone’s life. As I’ve said before, it would have been convenient if this rape scandal presented itself at the beginning of Nate’s career, so he could have moved past it by now. But that’s not how karma works. It comes when it’s ready. And it’s something like poetic justice that Parker finds himself disappointed and low, probably in the same ways the young lady did when he and Celestin were taunting and harassing her after she reported the alleged rape.
As much dissent as I, and a few other vocal people online, have expressed. I doubt that the film, if it is released as planned, will suffer. Instead, I’m sure that there are plenty of Black folk, mostly men, who believe, like Parker, that this is some type of twisted conspiracy to keep the Black man down. Even after the White man put $17.5 million into the project. I’m sure there are those who are able to separate the art from the artist.
We’ve all done it at one time or another. Woody Allen is nominated for an Oscar every other year, even though he married his ex wife’s adopted daughter. Marv Albert sodomized someone and NBC makes sure that he eats very well. R Kelly’s track record with little girls is disgusting but he’s still touring, selling out venues. Bill Cosby still, after 50 + rape accusations, has people who swear he’s Heathcliff. And even me. I love me some Al Green and James Brown, though they were both notorious for abusing their wives and girlfriends. Even my beloved Prince, God rest his soul, had a questionable relationship with Mayte, most likely before she was of legal age. There is a lot the public is willing to forgive, especially if there is art or entertainment value attached to the person. Who knows where their heads will be in a few months, when it’s time for the movie to come out. Maybe then, we’ll all have forgotten, rationalized, dismissed, or completely ignored our disappointment for Nate Parker’s actions 17 years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nate Parker is a little less disappointed in the Black community come October.
Veronica Wells is the culture editor at MadameNoire. She is also the author of “Bettah Days.”